This week, we examine the Catholic Church’s teachings on how we are saved, or how we obtain eternal salvation with God in heaven. I’m going to begin with a somewhat perplexing scripture verse. St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, states, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
The first question that might come up is, “What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions?” After all, He entered into humanity, suffered immensely and was crucified precisely so that we would be saved. He did everything He came to do and did it with an unparalleled love and desire for us to be with Him. That should be enough, right? What else is there? What is lacking is our response to His work and our participation in that work. Yes, it was a free and complete gift to us, but it is one we have to receive and utilize. As you can see, St. Paul himself was participating in Christ’s work by writing letters, traveling, and spreading the good news of the gospel. Even though this caused him quite a bit of suffering, he rejoiced in all of it because it was a participation in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of all of us.
I’m sure you have heard others say that the Catholic Church teaches that people can “earn their way to heaven” through good works. The Church does not teach this and never has. We can not just wake up in the morning, feed the poor and hungry all day long, go to sleep, and think that’s enough to get to heaven. After all, as long as you’re a “good person,” that’s enough, right? No.
You have also probably heard it said by members of other Christian faiths that people are saved by faith alone. God’s work of salvation was so complete and lacking in nothing that as long as we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, then we are good to go and don’t have to do anything else, at least in terms of obtaining salvation. Our faith makes heaven guaranteed even in spite of how far off track we get by persisting in sin or rejecting His will for us.
Both these ways of understanding are incorrect. Choosing one way or another (faith vs. works) causes us to fall into the sin of presumption. Here is what the Catholic Church says about presumption:
There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit.) CCCC #2092
We are nothing without God, and any good work that we do comes from His gifts alone. To think we are the driving force behind our salvation amounts to arrogance and pride. Conversely, “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” (James 2:17). Without works, our faith quickly becomes lukewarm and leaves us virtually unidentifiable as Christians. Going too far in one direction or the other is sinful, as it causes an imbalance of truth and misunderstands the nature of God and the nature of humans.
The Church actually teaches we need both faith and works. In the following excerpts, we can read what the Council of Trent had to say about it in 1563, after the Reformation raised concerns about how our salvation is accomplished. (To be clear, the Church always taught these things, but councils are typically used as opportunities to clarify and formally define doctrines when issues arise. As a personal aside, I think one of the great scarred-over wounds of the Church is that this council was not held before the Reformation, so as to possibly prevent our separation from our brethren in Christ in the first place.)
Canon 1. If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.
Canon 9. If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.
As you can see, there is no way to get to heaven without faith, but we also have to cooperate with that faith through our works. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works,” (James 2:18). In other words, it is precisely because of our faith in Jesus Christ and the work He has done in our lives, which compels us to do good works in cooperation with that faith. In fact, Jesus himself preached over and over that our faith needs to be expressed by our actions. The Church identifies both the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy, which were given to us by Jesus in his teaching:
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God. CCCC #2447
Our faith in Jesus must be manifested by doing what He asked us to do, which includes many, many works.
Now that we have established that we need both faith and works in order to make up for what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, I am going to further expand our view of this by adding two more ingredients to our formula for obtaining eternal salvation – grace and obedience. There is a cycle of call and response here. We’ve already said that we cannot do anything worth doing without God and He cannot do much with us if we are not responding to Him, so let’s look at how grace and obedience fit into this. We have faith in God and want to do things to demonstrate that faith. Therefore, we need His helping grace to live out an authentic Christian life, identifiable by our work in the world. This grace is a free gift, but we have to accept it. We do that by being obedient to His will – not only His will for the work we do in our lives to be closer to Him and the work we do on our own sins, which distance us from Him, but also by doing His will in our relationships with others, as identified in the works of mercy. Our obedience to His will is also a tangible expression of our faith in Him. You cannot have faith and works if you do not have grace and obedience. St. Paul sums up the relationship between the four key ingredients of faith, works, grace, and obedience by telling us, “…through [Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5).
I will finish by pointing out that none of this succeeds without a strong prayer life. It is through prayer that you will grow in faith and know His holy will and it is through prayer that you will receive the strength to be obedient in your works. This week, consider the two types of presumptions. Do you find yourself leaning more toward the presumption of thinking you can do it all on your own? On the other hand, do you find yourself presuming in the mercy of God a little too much, causing you to be a little lazy in your works and the rejection of sin? Take it to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to give you the grace you need to balance it all out for His greater glory and your eternal salvation.